A brief history of vodka

Both Russia and Poland claim to be the original source of vodka. The earliest suggestions of vodka distillation date back to the 8th or 9th century, but it does not really appear on the records until the 11th century.

During the Middle Ages, it was mainly used medicinally, and sold by apothecaries. This accounts for one theory for the origin of the word ‘vodka’, a diminutive of the Russian or Polish words for water, and derived from ‘water of life’. (The same connection applies to the origin of the word whisky, from Gaelic uisga beatha (water of life); Italian aquavite; and the French eau de vie.)

By the 16th century, vodka had become a popular drink in Russia and Poland and had spread to Scandinavia; it came to western Europe with the military in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

An epidemic of alcoholism in Russia persuaded the authorities to turn vodka production into a state monopoly in 1894, and it remained so after the Russian Revolution of 1917. At that time, a number of vodka manufacturers fled Russia, and set up distilleries abroad – like Vladimir Smirnoff, in Istanbul and Paris. The Smirnoff company transferred to the USA in 1934.

However, vodka was not widely drunk in western Europe and the USA until the 1960s and 1970s, when the fashion for cocktails re-emerged: flavourless vodka proved the perfect alcohol for the purpose. Now vodka is produced in just about every country in the world.